The Slatest

What Exactly Is Our Problem With Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 23, 2018. - Saudi Arabia is hosting the key investment summit overshadowed by the killing of critic Jamal Khashoggi that has prompted a wave of policymakers and corporate giants to withdraw. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 23.
Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images

Congress now has a plethora of options to dial up the pressure on Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But time is running short, and it’s unclear if lawmakers will pursue any of them.

In a useful Twitter thread, Scott Anderson of the Brookings Institution runs through the five separate pieces of legislation on Saudi Arabia that may come up for debate this week.

The most dramatic option is the joint resolution sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee, which would invoke the War Powers Resolution to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. The long-gestating measure passed a key procedural vote last week and then another one Wednesday, when the senate voted 60–39 to open debate. A final vote could take place later Wednesday.

But meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Ro Khanna again reintroduced his own War Powers Resolution–based measure. Last time this measure came up, in November, House leaders inserted a clause in a bill about removing gray wolves from the endangered species list to prevent debate on it. On Wednesday, they again prevented it from coming to a vote with a line inserted into a rule related to the farm bill. Five Democrats voted for the rule, preventing what would have been an embarrassing failure for Republicans.

The bill could be reintroduced again in January, when Democrats take over the House, but then the Senate would have to renew its approval. This will be tougher with the net loss of two Democratic seats, plus Republican Jeff Flake, who has criticized Trump on a number of foreign policy issues.

On the other end of the intensity scale is a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” resolution by Republican Sen. and newly converted Saudi critic Lindsey Graham, which would condemn Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s death and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker is reportedly planning a somewhat tougher version of Graham’s bill that would be a joint resolution requiring action by the House, meaning it would land on Trump’s desk. These would probably be taken up after a final vote on the Murphy-Sanders-Lee resolution.

A third path is represented by a bill introduced by Sens. Bob Menendez and Todd Young and still being fought over in the Foreign Relations Committee. This one would suspend arms sales—with some exceptions—to the Saudis until the Yemen conflict is resolved and would use the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions “that the President determines, based on credible evidence … was responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing an act or acts contributing to or causing the death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

The crown prince’s name does not appear in this bill, but it’s very much about him. President Trump has continually refused to acknowledge the evidence linking MBS to Khashoggi’s death, most recently in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday. But U.S. intelligence agencies clearly believe there’s compelling evidence of his involvement, which is evident based not only on media reports but also on senators’ outraged reactions to last week’s classified briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel. Menendez’s bill still leaves it up to Trump whether to hold MBS accountable, but as Brookings’ Scott Anderson told me, it is “intended to shame the Trump administration and impose political costs if it implements this provision in a way lacking in credibility.” This assumes that shame is a meaningful motivator to this administration, which is an optimistic assumption.

Since all these measures, with the exception of Graham’s, would require action from both chambers and have to overcome a Trump veto, they’re all long shots. But the forthcoming debate over them should be instructive. Namely, members of Congress have to articulate exactly what their problem is with Saudi Arabia.

In the American public debate over Saudi Arabia in the past few weeks, the Khashoggi killing and the war in Yemen have been linked, but they’re hardly the same issue. You can make a logical argument that while Khashoggi’s killing was inexcusable, the fight against the Houthis in Yemen is a key U.S. interest, and the importance of the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia to combat Iran outweighs the negatives. This is more or less the argument made by outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in an interview with NBC on Wednesday.

You can also make the argument that U.S. involvement in the Yemen war has been morally unacceptable and strategically dubious from the start and that the larger U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to be rethought. This position has gotten more popular with Democrats since Trump became president, but a few senators in a both parties took this stance under Obama as well.

What’s a little harder to fathom are those who seem to believe that the death of one journalist in Istanbul, rather than tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, should change the U.S. stance on the war. Graham has had the most dramatic transformation—“I changed my mind because I’m pissed”—but he’s hardly alone. Ten Democrats including Menendez changed their votes on the Murphy-Sanders-Lee resolution between March and last month, a change of heart that almost certainly had more to do with the outrage over Khashoggi than any new information on whether the Yemen war is constitutional.

Likewise, there’s been a dramatic shift from a few months ago, when MBS was widely viewed in Washington as a promising reformer, to the prevailing view today that he’s, as Corker put it, “out of control.” As I wrote last week, MBS’s own rivals for power in Riyadh have been more than happy to feed this new narrative. The question then becomes: Is Saudi Arabia a reliable and important ally that just happens to have a bloodthirsty, impulsive crown prince in charge of its foreign policy, or is the problem with the kingdom itself?